It’s after 2 a.m. in Club 38, a nightspot in an old railway shed in Beirut. The DJ is in the cab of a rusty train. Lights sweep across a dense crowd below. My host is Andy Khawaja, a Lebanese-American businessman. We’re sitting at the club’s VIP table and he’s scrolling through photographs on his phone. Here he is with Hillary Clinton at a fundraiser. Here, he’s shaking hands with President Trump in the Oval Office.
The men he’s with in the club have shaved heads, bushy beards, tattoos. I wonder if they’re mafia, militia, or mukhabarat (secret police). When I get up and walk to the restroom, a burly minder with a Glock in his waistband follows a step behind. He turns on the tap and hands me a towel. Back at the table, a line of men in fezzes stamp out the dabka, an Arab folk dance, in tribute to Khawaja. He’s delighted. One of the fez dancers is banging a huge drum. The music is deafening and we have to scream to be heard.
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‘They fucked me, Paul, they fucked me. First, they destroyed my business. Now they’re coming after me.’ Andy Khawaja believes he’s being persecuted because of what he knows. And what he knows, he tells me, is that Saudi Arabia and the Emirate of Abu Dhabi bought the 2016 election for Donald Trump.
Over the past year, we’ve met at his palatial home high in the Hollywood Hills, at the Kempinski hotel in Qatar and at the cigar bar of the Mayfair Arts Club in London. One minute, he’s showing me a picture of himself with the Pope (he gives huge sums to charity); the next he’s on a video call with what seems to be an official in Tehran, trying to free an American hostage. There’s always a touch of the fantastical, even the impossible, about Khawaja’s life and his stories. I’ve come to Beirut to get him to go on the record about something he’s been talking about privately to me for many months: what happened in the 2016 elections.
Khawaja claims the Saudis and the Emiratis illegally paid tens or even hundreds of millions of dollars to the Trump campaign in 2016. He says that to keep it secret, they disguised the money as small donations from Americans, using stolen identities and ‘virtual credit cards’ or gift cards — donations of less than $200 do not have to be reported to the Federal Election Commission and made public. He claims the Saudis and the Emiratis were able to make thousands of such small donations at a time using the latest payment processing technology. Khawaja knows this, he says, because he sold the know-how to their middleman, George Nader, who will be the central character in this story.
All those supposedly involved in this have issued denials or preferred not to comment. They include Nader’s lawyers; the Saudi and Emirati embassies in Washington, DC; the Trump campaign and the Republican National Committee; and Stripe, the company that took credit card payments for them both during the election. Khawaja says he’s tried and failed to get the FBI to investigate. The Bureau isn’t saying what it makes of his story. Khawaja also says he has spoken to a National Security Council member, a congressman, a senator and a former general. Nothing has come of that, either. Meanwhile, his life has been shattered, his company wrecked. But he believes he will be vindicated in the end.
Time to leave for the next place. No tab is presented: ‘I never pay, Paul.’ Khawaja strides through the club shaking hands. He is short and barrel-chested in a black shirt and skinny jeans. A line of SUVs waits outside. He climbs into the front seat of a black Range Rover and I squeeze into the back. The driver hands Khawaja an M4A4 assault rifle from the well of the front seat. He jokingly points it towards the back and we all duck and dodge as the barrel swings around — everyone, that is, except Claudette, a 6ft Lebanese prostitute with long black hair, ordered by someone in the group. She giggles. She seems used to this kind of thing.
Then it’s out of the Range Rover, into another club and on to another VIP table, bouncers and bodyguards clearing the way, staff hurrying to bring bottles of booze, Khawaja chewing on a fat cigar, his eyes twinkling, no one asking for money. The nightclubbing ends at 6 a.m. and we agree to meet for lunch at 2 in the afternoon.
The restaurant is by the Beirut marina. Yachts bob up and down outside. Khawaja orders for us from a spread of seafood on ice: red mullet and sea bass (eaten raw), shrimp and octopus. One of last night’s group slumps in a chair, gray-faced and glassy-eyed. He says Khawaja got everyone up at 8 to go fishing. Khawaja always told me he needed only two hours’ sleep a night, but I never really believed it. Yet now he doesn’t seem tired at all. Perhaps this is how he built up a business he says is, or used to be, worth $18 billion.
The Khawaja legend is that he grew up poor in Lebanon during the civil war, picking up bullet casings from the street to sell for scrap. He escaped at the age of 14, made his way alone to the United States and found his first job in a Wendy’s in New Jersey. Although his real first name is Ahmad, he’s been ‘Andy’ ever since he arrived. He worked as a cashier in a supermarket and eventually moved on to ‘selling jackets on Rodeo Drive’ in Los Angeles. Realizing that it was hard for shops to take payments from foreign credit cards, he then started a company, Allied Wallet, to make it easy. Payment processing is Khawaja’s business. He knows credit cards and he knows how to move money. He may also know how to move money secretly.
In early 2016, Khawaja wanted to create an online shopping mall for the Middle East, an Arab Amazon. He needed investors. Enter George Nader. Like Khawaja, Nader is Lebanese-American. His name might be familiar because he was a witness in the Mueller inquiry. In January 2017, Nader set up a meeting in the Seychelles that he apparently hoped would establish a back channel between the Trump administration and the Kremlin. He’s now awaiting sentence in the US, a convicted pedophile.
In 2016, Nader was working for Mohammed bin Zayed (‘MbZ’) the crown prince of Abu Dhabi, part of the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Khawaja says Nader told him he’d found an investor for the online mall, another member of the Emirati royal family. Khawaja told this sheikh he would need half a billion dollars to build the Arab Amazon. Just send us the details, the sheikh said, and we’ll invest the whole $500 million.
Khawaja couldn’t believe his luck: ‘For me it was like, “Fuckin’ hallelujah! Jackpot!”’ It turned out that the sheikh was involved in running Abu Dhabi’s intelligence services. But the half billion never arrived, none of it, and the mall project died. Instead, Nader said he wanted to buy Khawaja’s ‘payment engine’, the technology for taking credit card payments over the internet. Khawaja agreed.
Khawaja says that in September 2016, Nader told him why he needed the payment engine. Abu Dhabi wanted help making ‘online micropayments’ in bulk to the Trump campaign and the RNC. He describes Nader asking for help to make it work: ‘How can we generate electronic payouts to the online donation websites? I would like you to show us how we would be able to do that.’
Khawaja wasn’t taking notes or recording these conversations. These are his recollections of what Nader said, and we have only his word. He remembers Nader explaining why they wanted to fund the Trump campaign. According to Khawaja, Nader said: ‘I’ve been meeting with the Trump campaign people…we have a deal with Trump: my boss, His Highness, made a deal that if we help Trump get elected, he’s going to be harsh on Iran, he’s going to take out the nuclear deal that the Obama administration made. That will cripple the Iranian economy and will sanction Iran from selling oil again. It will make it very difficult for them to compete in the oil market. That’s worth a hundred billion dollars to us. That’s the reason we cannot allow Hillary to win at any cost. She must lose.’
Khawaja says he asked: ‘But you really think he’s going to win? I mean, this is crazy.’ And he says that Nader replied: ‘His Highness is not stupid, he will never bet on a losing horse.’ The money would come from the Saudis. The Emiratis would run the operation, using data bought from the Chinese. Khawaja says that Nader told him: ‘We have all the data already, we have 10 million US consumers’ data. And we have endless money.’ The Russians were ‘on board’ too: ‘He said, “Yes, I have met with Putin already and we have a green light from him. Because Putin is on the same page with us. He wants Hillary to lose.”’
Nader’s lawyers have not responded to my questions. If Nader really did say all this, the obvious reaction is that he was fantasizing in order to exploit Khawaja. The Trump campaign, for one, told me that Nader had asked them for a meeting and they had refused; there is nothing to suggest that any meeting would have been to discuss small dollar donations. Khawaja says that he assumed Nader was lying about everything — until, that is, Nader sent him three pictures from his phone.
The first picture shows Nader meeting with Vladimir Putin in what feels like some corner of the Kremlin. In the second, Nader is warmly embraced by the Saudi leader, Mohammed bin Salman (‘MbS’) in what appears to be a private office or sitting room. In the third, Nader is with his patron, MbZ, apparently on MbZ’s private plane.
These pictures don’t prove there was a plot to secretly finance the Trump campaign. But they do show that Nader had the access he allegedly claimed to have. In the fish restaurant in Beirut, Khawaja clasps my hand and leans forward, imitating Nader’s reedy, slightly breathless voice. ‘“And if this works,” he said to me like this’— now Khawaja is pulling me towards him — ‘“if this works, Wallahi [‘I swear to God’], Wallahi Andy, Wallahi Andy, Wallahi Andy, Wallahi Andy…”’ Now Khawaja and I are uncomfortably close. He acts out the crucial moment with Nader: ‘“Wallahi, I swear to God, Andy, His Highness will control every America election. His Highness will control America. We will control America.”’
Khawaja describes pulling away from Nader, his ‘head spinning’, and telling him he’d have nothing to do with his scheme. At this point, he says, Nader had paid him almost $5 million of the $10 million agreed for the blueprints of his payment engine. At this point, too, it seemed to Khawaja that this was Nader’s money: Nader, he thought, was hoping to please his boss, MbZ.
The plot to buy the election was still taking shape, Khawaja says, when he walked away: Nader would have to develop the payment engine without his help. He heard nothing more until January 2017, after Trump had won and was preparing to take office. Khawaja says he gave Nader ‘a couple of spare tickets’ to events at the Inauguration. He describes Nader sitting at his table, smiling and saying, ‘You see, I told you, I told you Trump was going to win.’
Khawaja remembers Nader telling him that Trump’s first foreign trip would be to Riyadh, to ‘celebrate’ with MbS and MbZ: ‘They’re the ones that got him elected.’ There was more — Saudi Arabia and the UAE would announce a blockade of their rival, Qatar, and Trump would support it.
Trump did, in fact, make his first foreign trip to Riyadh, in May 2017. And he did support the blockade of Qatar, which began in June 2017. Khawaja says Nader told him during their talk at the Inauguration that they had put ‘a few hundred million’ into the effort to elect Trump. At the fish restaurant, I ask Khawaja if he thinks the payments are continuing today. ‘One hundred percent.’
The Department of Justice tells a different story about why Nader gave Khawaja $5 million. In December 2019, the DoJ jointly charged Nader and Khawaja with making $3.5 million in illegal campaign contributions — not to Trump, but to Hillary Clinton.
Khawaja and Nader are accused of old-fashioned ‘straw donor’ fraud. A foreign government wants to get money to a candidate, so it gives the money to an American who makes the donation in his or her own name. The prosecutors say Nader got $3.5 million from the Emiratis to give to Khawaja for political committees supporting Hillary. Nader has pled not guilty to the charges.
The US government now considers Khawaja a fugitive.
The DoJ’s indictment claims that Nader and Khawaja used an absurdly transparent code to disguise the movement of money. Hillary was ‘big sister’, her fundraisers were ‘birthday parties’ and the cash was ‘baklava’. This, the indictment says, explains Nader and Khawaja’s WhatsApp exchanges:
Nader: ‘I am following up with my people on making sure the goodies arrive later this week in time for the Party!’
Khawaja: ‘The birthday party has been set up…for my sister and it’s going to be huge for her…’
Nader: ‘Fresh hand made baklava on the way designed especially for that private event at your house later!’
Khawaja: ‘Small baklava arrived. 2.7 pieces.’
The indictment says this refers to the delivery to Khawaja’s company of €2.5 million by wire transfer. As plans go, this one was not very cunning. Khawaja agrees: ‘The FBI love it — it looks like some code and that’s their wet dream.’ But he insists that the ‘baklava was actually really baklava’. He claims they were talking about two different things in the WhatsApp messages: Nader was bringing baklava from the Middle East as a gift for Hillary, but he was also making a joke about how much money he still owed Khawaja for the payment gateway.
‘I asked him, “Why are you writing me [about] fuckin’ 2.2 million boxes of baklava? Just say, I’m sending you $2.2 million, what I owe you.”’ The FBI did not get the joke. ‘In 2016, I made $43 million. You think I need a fucking $3 million from this guy? Why would George need to give me even one dollar to give to Hillary Clinton? He’s a US citizen. He can do it himself. I made a deal with George and he bought a product from me. I never lobbied for anyone, I never took any money from a foreign leader. Never.’
Records published by the Federal Election Commission show Khawaja making large political donations, mostly to Democrats but also giving to Republicans. Last year, I saw evidence of his clout at a dinner in the Trump Hotel in Washington, DC, when he bumped into some senior Republicans. The evening began with a line of hotel employees bowing and handwringing — Khawaja is a big tipper and very popular — as they ushered him up the stairs to BLT Prime, the hotel’s steak restaurant. We were given the best table in the house, the circular one in the corner where President Trump likes to eat, with a view of the hotel’s monstrous chandeliers and cavernous, nine-story lobby. Khawaja was telling me about the warm welcome he got whenever he went to Capitol Hill.
‘I’ve given money to half the people there,’ he said. Just then, the House Republican Leader, Kevin McCarthy, arrived and was shown to the second-best table in the restaurant. He was leading a large group that included members of Congress and a couple of governors. The choreography was interesting. Khawaja and McCarthy stood but did not move, instead semaphoring greetings at each other from their respective tables. But many of McCarthy’s group headed over to Khawaja’s table to pay their respects. They looked like the line of hotel employees from earlier.
Khawaja’s obsession that evening was a legal action against Allied Wallet by the US government. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) had accused Khawaja’s company of helping internet fraudsters to cheat consumers. Khawaja was beside himself with fury. Other, far bigger, payment processors were doing exactly the same thing, he said. Allied Wallet later paid the FTC the staggering sum of $110 million to settle the complaint.
In Beirut, Khawaja tells me that he sees this action, and the later criminal charges, as part of a pattern, and that Allied Wallet was singled out because he has made some powerful enemies. He claims that Abu Dhabi has spent ‘$25 to $30 million’ on a lobbying effort against him that reaches into the Department of Justice. The White House is working with the Emiratis, he says, afraid of what he knows.
‘One day I might have to testify against them, so why not burn me first?’ He goes on to tell me something he’s often said before: ’The law has been manipulated. I see my case like a judgment time — when they brought Jesus Christ to the Romans. They just threw an accusation at him to crucify him. That’s how I see myself, Jesus Christ standing in a Roman court, being accused of things I never did.’
Khawaja has shown me no proof of secret payments to the Trump campaign. But he insists that he remembers what Nader told him and that he gave Nader the tools to do the job. Could Khawaja be telling an elaborate story to distract from the charges he faces? He says he went to the FBI two years ago, long before he was indicted. A former public figure tells me that’s true: he helped Khawaja speak to the FBI. But, he says, Khawaja never produced the evidence he promised. The FBI won’t comment.
While there is no hard evidence that Khawaja’s story is true, his account is supported by two witnesses. On our night out in Beirut, we meet another businessman who dealt with Nader in the UAE. This man, who arrives in a silver Rolls Royce, recalls that he, too, was asked by Nader to sell him a credit card payments gateway in 2016, and that Nader mentioned a connection to the UAE. He remembers Nader seeming almost desperate to acquire the gateway.
And it seems that Nader told at least one other person about the small-dollar donations. Around the time of the 2016 election, a friend of Nader’s for 30 years says he saw him for lunch at the Beverly Wilshire hotel in Los Angeles. This man’s recollections of what Nader said are remarkably similar to Khawaja’s. He also says that Nader told him he was getting $12 million a month from the royal court in Abu Dhabi to run the election operation: ‘He finally got his big payday.’
In the summer of 2018, this man introduced me to Nader, taking me to see him in Abu Dhabi. Nader wanted to talk about doing a big interview for an American television network to rehabilitate his image. By then, he was notorious both as a witness for the Mueller inquiry and for a long history of pedophile offenses. He blinked owlishly and said — in the distinctive, high pitched voice that Khawaja later imitated — how unfair it all was. He said nothing about micropayments to the Trump campaign.
Nader did tell me that he had been to the White House ‘a dozen times’ to help set up Trump’s visit to Riyadh. If this is true, was Nader acting as an unregistered agent of Saudi Arabia and the UAE? After I saw him in Abu Dhabi, I met a senior Emirati diplomat in Washington, DC. He remembered Nader ‘frantically banging on the embassy’s door’ after Mueller’s team had arrested him at the airport. But, he said, the UAE had been careful to stay ‘35,000 feet above the US election’.
Whether you believe Khawaja or the DoJ, both versions of events have the UAE using its wealth to buy influence. Khawaja’s story is, however, about vastly greater sums, perhaps enough to swing an election, though, as with all allegations of election-buying, it’s impossible to correlate dollars directly to votes. One former Federal Election Commission official told me that he and his colleagues had been worrying for a long time that the rules on small-dollar donations could be exploited. Others involved in the specialized and highly technical business of campaign finance have told me they doubt such a scheme could succeed.
The Republican National Committee says it has ‘seen no evidence’ to support Khawaja’s claims. Its press office emailed me a statement: ‘We take diligent steps to ensure donations are made in accordance with the law.’ The RNC and the Trump campaign accept donations through the credit card processing company Stripe. Stripe say they use ‘machine learning to recognize fraud’.
I asked Gerrit Lansing, who ran the RNC’s digital operations in 2016, about whether online micropayments could be made in bulk, by a foreign government or anyone else. Lansing replied by text: ‘We get this conspiracy theory a lot and it’s easily disproven.’ But Khawaja believes that he knows more than anyone about online payments — and that it is not difficult to make fraudulent campaign donations look real.
There remains the question of Trump’s phenomenal fundraising among small donors. Barack Obama reinvented online fundraising and in 2012 small donations provided 28 percent of his campaign budget. In 2016, only 22 percent of Hillary Clinton’s campaign money came from small donors. In the same year, 69 percent of all the money the Trump campaign raised came from individuals giving less than $200 each. And — a slightly different measure — in one quarter last year, 99 percent of Trump’s contributors were small donors.
The generally accepted view is that the president has built a new political movement from the grassroots up. Andy Khawaja has a different explanation. Back in Lebanon, he lives like an exile from the United States. Ironically, the US government has canceled his credit cards. He says he is surviving on ‘loans from friends’. As we sit in the Beirut apartment he bought for his parents in a luxurious blue-green glass tower overlooking the marina, he reminisces about a TV show he once produced, Model Turned Superstar. (‘From the creative mind of billionaire payments mogul Andy Khawaja comes a new reality show that brings nearly 100 models from around the globe together.’) He was a judge on the show, of course, and talked about the models in a promotional video: ‘I wanna spoil them just the way I spoil myself. Life is journey into the light, not into the dark. You know 25 years ago I wasn’t rich either. I was struggling to eat [from] my sardine can at night and look where I am today: livin’ it the largee.’
Now, Khawaja has a new title for the reality show of his life: The Whistleblower.
‘How do you like that title? I’m the whistleblower, Paul, the whistleblower. The whistleblower who revealed foreign government interference in our election has been charged to cover up for the Trump administration. Falsely accused and charged…it’s Operation Suffocation, Operation Choke Point. End-to-end. Take him out. Kill him. They tried to frame me so bad. At the end of the day, I sleep like a baby at night. Because I know I didn’t do anything. I am the whistleblower.’